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At the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly there is a seemingly unremarkable short scene between two of the main characters. Martin, the husband of Karin (the film’s only female protagonist) and Karin’s father (who we know simply as ‘Papa’) are setting the nets for fish just off the small island where the family has rented a summerhouse. Martin asks Papa if he received his letter a few weeks before, and the two discuss Karin’s health. It is at this early juncture that the audience learns that Karin’s illness, whatever it is, is incurable.
The conversation is short and matter-of-fact, with the two men carrying out their respective jobs as Martin rows slowly along and Papa feeds out the netting – the film cutting back and forth between them in a conventional shot-reverse-shot structure. They pause briefly to concentrate on their talk, and the film pulls back to an establishing shot of the boat and the two men; the stark bleakness of the ocean and the sparsely vegetated island behind them. While ostensibly unexceptional, the scene is pure Bergman: stoic and minimalist in its dialogue and performance, concentrated in its aesthetic and composition.The unpretentious style creates a realism and honesty that has come to characterize Swedish cinema, and Swedish culture, throughout history.
Bergman almost single-handedly put Swedish cinema on the world map. Following the early success of the deeply symbolic Summer with Monika (1952) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman was launched into international art cinema stardom. As his cult status began to fade in the face of French New Wave heroes Godard and Truffaut, his films unexpectedly made an abrupt transition from the symbolic to the persona – reigniting the film world’s fascination with this distinctly Scandinavian style. The proliferation of silent film from Sweden in the early 1900s introduced Sweden’s profound preoccupation with issues of social and political justice that would feed Swedish cinema’s future celebration of honesty and realism. Bergman heralded in an age of modernism in the arts that correlated with not only this heritage of Swedish stoicism but also with the progressive social atmosphere of Sweden in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Through his glittering career of over 50 feature and television films, Bergman firmly established the major thematic concerns of Swedish film-making, which remain consistent today. The standard stylistic trends of minimalism and realism grew out of Bergman’s tendency towards the darker side of human nature; his films often had heavy themes, such as those known collectively throughout art as the ‘Scandinavian Depression’ – death, loneliness, love and insanity. The truest testament to Ingmar Bergman’s status as the premier force of Swedish cinema, is that the aesthetic trends he exploited and developed so masterfully have endured beyond his own artistic endeavors to influence later generations of filmmakers who are now embracing new and evolving subjects and themes.
The minimalism and realism championed by Bergman’s haunting tales can be seen in various incarnations in the 1980s trend of Swedish comedy and melodrama and in the recent flood of Swedish horror and thriller films. The wildly popular cult hit Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008) directed by Tomas Alfredson is a perfect example of the mingling of realism with a modern Swedish preoccupation with the horror and fantasy genre. Restrained acting performances, minimalist script writing, inconspicuous cinematography and a muted, subdued color palette allow the intense honesty of human emotion to shine through in a deeply moving story of loneliness and love.
Lukas Moodysson, perhaps the most popular of Sweden’s modern day directors, first awed cinephiles with his 1998 feature Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål), which was praised for simple realism and emotional honesty in his brazen portrayal of a lesbian love affair between two teenagers in a small Swedish town. At a time when the majority of the world still considered homosexuality a taboo subject, socially progressive Swedish artists were creating moving and subtle tributes to the difficulties of love in all its forms. Moodysson followed one success with another, releasing Together (Tillsammens, 2008), a story of a small, dysfunctional hippie commune in 1970s Stockholm. Distinctly different from Bergman’s often-static camera style, Moodysson employs overt zooms and abrupt tracking and pans to mirror the hectic environment of the over-crowded and unconventional house. Yet far from detracting from the honesty and realism of the story, the explicit aesthetic technique emphasizes the intensely emotional acting performances as characters struggle simultaneously with the charged political atmosphere of a changing world and the emotional turmoil of love and loss as even the adults learn they are continuously in the process of ‘growing up’.
It is unsurprising that these thematic trends of realism, simplicity and honesty have endured since the beginning of Bergman’s time, because the very aesthetic devices he introduced to the world, to such fanfare, grew naturally out of the culture in Sweden: the high value placed on family life, a strong sense of social justice and equality, the interdependence of people and their environment and a Lutheran somberness that portends an intense release of concealed emotions. In recent years, Moodysson, Alfredson and many other modern Swedish directors have begun embracing a variety of aesthetic techniques in a variety of genres that embrace popular trends from a strong and ever-evolving youth culture in Sweden. Yet, as with Bergman, the underlying themes and values of their films echo a rich history of cinema that seems to embody the culture of Sweden itself. In a society often considered shy and reserved, the deep emotional intensity prevalent in Swedish cinema hints strongly that still waters really do run deep, and the warm and open welcome that awaits any who endeavorto truly immerse themselves in Swedish culture will never disappoint.